Where High Tech and History Meet


With gargoyles and griffins staring down from overhead, the Powell Library Building at UCLA appears more suitable for medieval monks than cyber-savvy college students.

But the nearly 70-year-old building is far from being an obsolete architectural relic. After a four-year, $35-million renovation, the historic structure--one of the four original buildings on the Westwood campus--opened this past summer as a state-of-the-art library designed to handle the challenges of the information age.

"We shoved the building into the 21st century," said Gregory B. Morrison, an electrical engineer.

The team of librarians, engineers and architects that worked on Powell struggled over how to bring the building up to date without losing the unique and quirky characteristics that have made it an endearing landmark. Complicating matters were rapid advances in computer technology as well as the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, which heavily damaged an ornate plaster ceiling and set back the reopening of the library by two years.

The struggle between preserving the old and accommodating the new has intensified as historical preservation efforts have spread, and the rapid pace of technological change threatens to make even 20-year-old buildings obsolete. The renovation of many other Southern California landmarks, ranging from Riverside's Mission Inn to the former Bullocks Wilshire department store, which will soon reopen as the library for the Southwestern University School of Law, has run into the same challenges.

"A building needs to change. . . . A building needs to have a life so that it can continue to serve a community over time," said Michael de Villiers, the architect for the Powell project.

Of course, historic preservation efforts don't come cheap. Protecting Powell's historic character--instead of simply gutting the building--significantly boosted the price and duration of the project, said Morrison, who notes that large, new college libraries have been built for about the same price as the renovation. However, the $35 million spent on the project is a fraction of what it would take to replicate the Powell building.

"You can't really build a library like Powell with that kind of artistry and craftsmanship at that price," said Morrison.

A quick tour of the Powell building, which houses the main undergraduate library, reveals some of the contrasts between the high tech and the historic:

* In what was formerly a reserve book room on the first floor, students line up to use one of more than 90 desktop computers in the Computer Commons to read e-mail, use the Internet to research papers or check a professor's online syllabus. The room is lined with the original and now mostly empty mahogany book shelves that "we almost consider wall paneling," De Villiers said.

* On the main floor, under the soaring, hand-painted plaster ceiling of the library's Reference Room, custom-made study tables and study carrels conceal "raceways" where students can hook up portable computers for electrical power and an Internet link. The library has more than 400 ports to handle portables computers.

* Upstairs, in a former warren of offices, students and teachers make multimedia presentations in high-tech classrooms. Students don't need to take notes, because the blackboards can electronically transmit their professors' scribblings to desktop computer printers. Teachers, in turn, will soon be able to pluck off whatever appears on a student's computer screen and display it to the entire class on television monitors.


What's invisible to the eye are the miles of fiber-optic cables and electrical wiring that tie together the hundreds of computers and other pieces of electronic equipment. Also hidden are new, seismically strengthened walls of steel-reinforced concrete designed to withstand powerful earthquakes.

Based on the designs of numerous Italian Renaissance churches, the Powell Library Building and its rotundas and towers have served as a center for campus life since opening in 1929, when UCLA moved to its current location. Throngs of UCLA students have climbed up the worn clay tile stairs, passed under Moorish-style arches and taken a seat at the long tables in the Reference Room--a dramatic, cathedral-like space where sunlight pours in through arched windows.

Despite numerous alterations and additions, it was clear by the 1980s that the Powell building--named after former librarian Lawrence Clark Powell--was in need of substantial renovation.

The methods, standards and cost of overhauling historically significant and prominent buildings such as Powell varies dramatically.

In downtown Los Angeles, the state of California will soon begin renovating the former Broadway department store into an office building for about 1,000 workers as part of efforts to revive the city's historic core. Unlike the Powell building, the interior of the Broadway had been pretty much gutted by the time the state took over the building, leaving architects and engineers great freedom to install the necessary computers, elevators and other updated systems inside the historic skin.

But preservationist are now as concerned with protecting the interiors of historic buildings as they once were with the exteriors, boosting the complexity and cost of a renovation. The make-over of the former Bullocks Wilshire building by the Southwestern University School of Law will incorporate many of the lamps, murals and other fixtures custom-made for the Art Deco landmark.

"Definitions of preservation have become stricter," said Powell project architect De Villiers, who works for the Los Angeles-based firm Moore Ruble Yudell. "Gutting a building is sort of politically incorrect today."

When it came to starting the Powell renovation, strengthening the building to withstand a major quake was a priority since its thick, but brittle, brick walls could crack during a major temblor. As a result, the structure was one of the first in California to undergo computer modeling to simulate how the building would respond to different types of quakes and identify weak spots.

Instead of leaving behind visible steel beams, bolts and plates that often alter the appearance of many old buildings after seismic work, pains were taken at Powell to mask any new construction.

In the Reference Room, a concrete mixture similar to that used to build swimming pools was injected in between the walls and reinforced with steel bars. The result is basically a concrete box nearly 80-feet tall sandwiched between the original brick on the outside and new plaster and original shelving inside.

"You don't want to spoil the facades and . . . damage the historical interior any more than you have to," said Catherine M. Wells, project manager for the building engineering firm Ove Arup Partnership. "You wouldn't want to walk in there and say, 'Oh, my God! Look what they did!' "

Preparing the building for the Information Age was as daunting as bracing it for the next big quake. The librarians wanted the Powell building to move away from the notion of the library as simply a storage place for books and expand its role of helping students navigate through the mounds of printed publications and the ever-growing sources of online information.


In fact, the renovated library has less space devoted to book stacks for its collection, which is expected to be supplemented and expanded in future years by online sources of information to a large degree.

But successfully melding the activist visions of librarians, ever-advancing technologies and an old building proved harder than expected. For example, the librarians originally thought they needed only 150 outlets for students to plug their computers into the campus or other networks, such as the Internet. But the soaring use of portable computers led the library to boost the number of computer ports to 450.

"What we need is the potential [to connect to a computer network] at every place there is a seat," said Terry Ryan, who oversees the campus libraries' computer systems. "We don't know what we are going to plug in, but we knew we need a plug."

The extensive use of such a large network of computers required the building's power supply and wiring to be dramatically expanded to handle the load and minimize interruptions. Wires, cables and outlets were laid out with care in the Reference Room because poking too many holes through the floor would weaken the structure.

There were a few spots where historic elements of the building prevented any direct computer hookup. For example, librarians wanted to put a computer at the top of a busy stairway leading to the Reference Room and circulation desk. But that idea was dropped after the engineers said that tile work on floor, walls and stairways would have to be torn up to insert wires and cables.

"I would have loved to put a computer right here," said Chief Librarian Eleanor Mitchell, pointing to a worn section of tile floor. "But some day there will be a wireless system."

Powell's new electronic systems should be able to accommodate 25 years worth of additional equipment, new gadgets and tools, according to Morrison, the electrical engineer. The system can handle, for example, the distribution of full-motion video and sound to any terminal when such equipment becomes more widely available.

But the project's planners could not completely stay on top of the changes and ever-rising demand for computers and telecommunications. In the Computer Commons, the desks could be a bit deeper to allow more room for the 17-inch-wide monitors instead of the 15-inch units they were originally designed for. However, students don't seem to mind that much and start lining up to use the computers even before the Commons opens, said Lisa Kemp, who manages the facility.

"We could open up five more rooms and they still would be standing in line," she said.

The library is now testing software that would limit use of its 450 computer ports to UCLA students and employees. So, for now, most students can plug in their laptops for electricity but not the Internet.

That has not stopped senior Geoff Merris from using the library. On a recent winter weekday, the 22-year-old psychobiology major was writing a research paper on his laptop, which was plugged into a table socket in the crowded Reference Room where fellow students sit nearly elbow to elbow as previous generations have done.

"If they didn't have the plugs I'd probably have to study at home and not get as much done," Merris said. "That's about all I need--a place to plug in."


Jesus Sanchez, who covers the regional real estate market for The Times, can be reached via e-mail at jesus.sanchez@latimes.com

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